Understatement In Benito Cereno

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In the early 1800’s, an American ship captain named Amasa Delano encountered what appeared to be a stranded Spanish slave ship with Captain Don Benito Cereno at the helm. He would soon learn, as would his equivalent character in Herman Melville’s 1855 novella Benito Cereno based on the real-life event, that Cereno was a prisoner of the slaves, who had staged a successful rebellion but sought supplies from the American’s ship. Delano writes about his travels in his 1817 book Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, Comprising Three Voyages Round the World, in which his portrayal of himself is obviously moral, powerful, and intelligent. Melville’s fictional Delano likewise describes himself as intelligent and good-natured and consistently assumes superiority over the seemingly weaker characters with whom he…show more content…
I argue that through the use of various forms of understatement in Benito Cereno, Melville produces a destabilizing effect that undermines and mocks the supposed power and intellect of Captain Delano. One of the first descriptions we get of Captain Delano sets this tone for his characterization throughout the rest of the novella: he sees himself as noble, but Melville’s writing fosters doubt about this in the reader. This occurs very early on, as after observing the mystery ship in the distance, Delano decides that despite the fact that it shows no colors, as was customary, the ship probably means no harm. Melville’s narration justifies this by explaining that “Delano’s surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature, not liable, except on extraordinary and repeated incentives...to indulge in personal alarms, any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man” (36). Rather than say outright that Delano is trusting,
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